Jan. 14, 2012
The Lost Church
Better than: That paranoid monologue that finally convinces the man to lock you up forever.
Between issuing unadorned pop-rock with his band, Sonny & the Sunsets, assigning himself sprawling art projects, and putting out low-key comic books, San Francisco artist Sonny Smith is known for funneling his dark, humorously perceptive vision through many types of media. On Saturday, he tried another kind of project: a one-hour live monologue accompanied by a skeleton of a rock 'n' roll band.
Called Sees All Knows All, the performance was the first of its kind for Smith, and winnowed his freewheeling vision down to an experience that was not quite live music nor live theater, but offered some of the best elements of each. He stitched pieces of past songs together over odd, sad tales similar to the ones in his comic books, added a few sci-fi twists to the plot, and presented it all in the resigned, wry mode that's become a signature part of his stage presence. By the end, it felt like the rambling, deeply strange vignettes of Sees All Knows All might be the most complete presentation of Smith's creative vision yet.
The show was given at the Lost Church, a tiny Mission venue that truly feels like a live theater crammed into a large living room. The stage sprawls over a corner of the room, framed by plush velvet curtains and Tiffany lamps. There's space for about 50 people on fold-out chairs and couches, and the vibe is low-key and friendly: Audience members were greeted by the building's owner as they walked in, and he also served as the sound and lighting technician for the show.
The basis for Sees All Knows All is a 3,200-word story divided into seven chapters, which Smith recounted onstage into a microphone, alone. Behind him was a projection screen displaying various images (a stairwell, a smattering image of stars in space, a foggy ocean scene) that served the visual setting for each chapter. Offstage, a three-piece band performed the music that accompanies the the story -- and it was the music that first grabbed our attention: The first chapter of Sees All Knows All combines the chords from the Sonny and the Sunsets song "Too Young to Burn" (off the album of the same name) with parts of the story from "Broke Artist at the Turn of the Century," another song from Smith's 100 Records project.
Set in San Francisco, the story begins with the protagonist receiving a piano as a gift, wanting to buy a ring for his lover, and fretting about the limitations of his life as a poor artist, which has become decidedly less acceptable as he's aged. ("You never had anything to gamble with, so you gambled with your whole life," the character hears from a friend whom he asks for money.) Later he takes a trip to the hospital, has a nightmare about meeting insanely horny aliens on Mars, and gets a gig working as an exterminator. As his life seems to unravel and become hopeless, he ventures to a yoga retreat in Santa Cruz and takes ayahuasca, where the story climaxes.
Delivered in Smith's dry, slightly nasal voice, the tale felt like a friend recounting a haunting dream -- or a troubled lifetime -- at a bar. Smith paused a few times during the show, possibly blanking on lines from the story, but overall the presentation was almost disturbingly smooth and low key, given its dire themes. (But then, framing an existential crisis in droll language is a favorite move of Smith's.) The music did what the words couldn't, shading our interpretations of certain lines and foreshadowing the narrative's shift into brighter and darker moments.
At the end, when the band returned to the chords from "Too Young Too Burn," they seemed to belong to Sees All Knows All, and appropriately so: Though it takes elements from all his works, this one-hour live performance offered a better peek into Smith's wry, humane vision than perhaps anything else he's done. Sees All Knows All is not a replacement for Smith's records or his art -- those stand well enough on their own -- but by weaving his detailed vignettes into an extended narrative and accompanying it with music, Sonny drove both his writing and his songs to become something grander and more all-encompassing than either could be alone.
Opener: The show has a different opener each night. On its first Saturday, local musician Alexi Glickman performed some of his own glistening, quiet folk-rock songs with an electric guitar and drums. Glickman's reverb-soaked chords proved ample accompaniment to his delicate, high-pitched voice, and coupled with brushes on a rudimentary drum kit, made for one of the quietest electrified performances we've ever seen. Possessed of an atmospheric grace reminiscent of Beach House and Galaxie 500, it was also one of the most beautiful.
Future shows: Smith is set to perform Sees All Knows All three more times at the Lost Church. Openers are as follows: Kelley Stoltz on Jan. 21, Kyle Field, on Jan. 28 and Tim Cohen on Feb. 4, with Sun Foot closing the final show.